Celts naturally see history ‘in terms of defeat’

Ambassador Alan Goodison found Irish downbeat and insular, with many ambivalent on North

The new British ambassador to Dublin in 1983 reported that “the Irish have often felt that they must keep themselves untouched by the real world outside” and by the 20th century.

“The triumph of Irish separatism was not a liberal triumph,” Alan Goodison wrote in a report for London eight months after his arrival in Dublin.

This had also led to a fear of engaging properly with the North, he believed, “not only because of the violence but because of the contamination of Protestantism and the influence of British contemporary society”.

In reality, he argued, “they cannot escape that influence, any more than British can escape the cultural influence of the United States”.

He detected “a raw nerve which never sleeps” and a “basic nationalism about being Irish, among the most sophisticated as well as the least”.

Part of this was due to understandable historical grievances about the plantation, Penal Laws, the Famine and Partition. “Perhaps it is one of the burdens of the Celt that he naturally sees history in terms of defeat.”

Discussing the question of support in the Republic for violent republicanism in Northern Ireland, Goodison claimed that there was a general perception that “it is not surprising if the boys get a bit rough at times when they are provoked by the security forces”.

He added: “All the Irish heroes of the past have been violent men and the use of force in the name of Ireland is hallowed by their memory.”

Goodison asserted “this unhappy island’s problems are complex enough to defy superficial examination”.

In explaining why he had taken eight months to offer his first report, he noted that the British ambassador in Dublin was “so heavily protected from injury or insult that he is sometimes bound to feel the realities of Irish life to be very remote”.

Goodison noted that Dublin and its surroundings held approximately one-third of the Irish population who were “somewhat less assiduous churchgoers than they were”.

But for many of them, the image of Ireland they had grown up with was “still one of 26 cosy counties, whose whole way of life could be totally disrupted by the Northerners”.

“They don’t even care for the Northern Catholics, who may have been victimised by the British, but still have adopted a number of foreign ways,” he wrote. “A substantial number do not believe that Irish unity is anything but a figment of politicians’ fantasy . . . The difficulty in taking account of it is that this majority is silent in public. It is the rest who make the political speeches.”

Earlier, in March 1983, Sir Leonard Figg had filed his final report as the outgoing British ambassador to Dublin.

In his report, entitled Some Impressions of Ireland, he noted the "contrast between the similarity of British and Irish institutions on the one hand, and the dissimilarity of our peoples on the other".

Although the Irish were a proud people, he wrote, “they are as ready as sometimes we are to be over-modest and self-critical, an attitude deepened by the consciousness of being a small country with few natural resources and living in the shadow of a much bigger Britain on whom they must rely for many things”.